Automation, innovation, and engagement offer promise to tackle staff burnout and enhance healthcare organization efficiency, sustainability

By Chris Hayhurst | January 28, 2022


It’s time to put what’s happening in the back office front and center.

That’s the message from the growing number of healthcare industry organizations that say their revenue cycle management operations are ready for a major overhaul. The problem, they note, has to do with staff burnout, much of which is due to reliance on manual processes.

This challenge has left many organizations struggling due to employee attrition – but some have found a way to fill the gap and structure themselves for long-term sustainability through a combination of automation and improved staff engagement. The answer is solutions like gamification, which incorporates game-style incentives into administrative work to make it more interesting and productive (in many cases with personalized avatars).

Healthcare isn’t the only industry burdened by staffing woes; nor is the continuum alone in realizing that technology offers answers. At Humana, for example, the payer complements artificial intelligence and automation with a task force of staff who manage digital workers. The result is administrators who have more decision power and roles that are more empowering. “We made a conscious effort to select tools that our associates could use to automate the redundant, boring tasks in their work,” Kerry Wang of Humana’s Intelligent Automation Center of Excellence told Forbes.

Technology offers promise of relief

Humana is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the automation and staff-engagement efforts across the healthcare continuum, says Dave Haight, athenahealth Vice President of Advisory Services.

“People get nervous when they hear about automation — worried that their job is going to replaced,” said Haight — but he sees it through a different lens. When an organization is short on staff, he explains, automation can help pick up the slack while making work better for the employees who remain.

The bottom line, Haight notes, is “people don’t like doing repetitive tasks. What they do want is to have meaning in their work and the opportunity to drive results for their organization.”

Kerry Wang, Humana Intelligent Automation Center of Excellence

“Automation allows healthcare institutions to focus on improving staff allocation,” Haight said. It can lead to cost savings by improving revenue cycle efficiencies and reducing human error, for example. It can also free up people to do the jobs that humans do best.

Consider what it takes to do an eligibility check. Among other things, the process might include navigating to a payer’s website, verifying the patient’s insurance, and determining the limitations of their coverage, “and then you’ve got to get that information back into your system” before you can move on to next steps. With automation, Haight explains, almost all of that work can be offloaded so that staff devote their time to “value-added” tasks like following up with payers or speaking with patients on the phone.

Likewise, there are tools to enhance staff engagement, just one challenge exacerbated with the rise of remote work. The key, Haight believe, is to help employees feel connected to the business as a whole and the administrative team specifically, and to ensure the value they provide is both visible to and recognized by their colleagues and the organization’s leaders.

At the University of Colorado Medicine, for example, gamification inspires “a new level of engagement and transparency” as it relates to workflows, says Kala Mazzadi, associate director of accounts receivable. The software includes analytics and other tools that allow the revenue cycle team to track employee performance and stay connected even when people are working virtually, Mazzadi notes. It also gives them “the opportunity to recognize and celebrate our staff in ways that we haven’t historically had,” she said.

Sharp HealthCare has a similar strategy. The San Diego-based hospital system was looking for ways to make the billing process more enjoyable while increasing staff productivity, and turned to a cloud-based gamification application that allows employees to “play” during work. Today, as Sharp staff tackle tasks, they earn points and can see how they’re performing compared to their anonymized avatar-peers.

“One of the things that is most fun for the employees is creating their avatar,” says Gerilynn Sevenikar, Sharp HealthCare Vice President of Hospital Revenue. The avatar—not the employee’s name—appears on the department’s productivity leaderboard. Staff watch their scores on the screen, and “they get that little nudge” if a colleague, for example, is closing in on their points total.

The technology, Sharp reports, has helped the organization significantly improve its billing quality and accuracy, and provided a way for managers to glean valuable insights into staff performance. It’s also helped the department reduce employee turnover by close to 70 percent.

Innovation can help right the healthcare ship

The question is whether other organizations will follow Sharp HealthCare’s lead in addressing their own challenges. Will they turn to technologies to automate manual tasks and make work more engaging for their staff, or will they use other strategies to minimize burnout and stem the tide of exiting employees?

One recent analysis found that if current trends continue, there will likely be a shortage of 3.2 million healthcare workers in the United States by 2026. Only a fraction of that total applies to the RCM space, but the magnitude of the issue is clear.

Haight believes that most organizations are prepared to use technology to help right the healthcare ship, pointing to a recent Gartner survey of CIOs. It found that 50 percent of U.S. providers planned to invest in robotic process automation (RPA) over the next three years.

To those executives, the Gartner report noted, automation is increasingly seen as not just a way to optimize costs but to maximize use of “scarce healthcare resources,” including back-office staff. Perhaps most importantly, bolstering efficiency can ultimately improve care delivery, the think tank noted.